Are HBCUs Under Attack? How Historically Black Colleges and Universities Can Stay Afloat in Today’s Landscape
If you haven’t been paying much attention to the debate concerning the relevance and effectiveness of historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), now is the time to sit up and take notice. If you don’t, there is a chance it could soon be too late. Over the last two decades, we have seen the number of HBCUs in the United States sharply decline.
This greatly concerns me. We need to take a moment to look at why people should pull together, rally around them, and help them make it through turbulent economic times. HBCUs have helped to educate some of the most prominent African American figures in this country’s history, including Jesse Jackson, Samuel L. Jackson, Martin Luther King Jr., Spike Lee, and Thurgood Marshall, among many others.
HBCUs provide cultural benefits, as well as providing an affordable education. This cultural foundation has been important to the African American community for over a century. HBCUs were there, supporting the community and educating many hardworking and productive citizens, long before other colleges would even let them through the door.
If you believe in the benefits of HBCUs, you need to stand up and let your voice be heard, before these important institutions are gone forever.
What’s happening, exactly?
HBCUs are coming under fire for everything from not improving their failing infrastructures to producing lower graduation rates, and more. Let’s take a closer look at some of the issues that HBCUs are currently facing.
Why HBCUs are underfunded—and why this matters
By way of a study published in Newsweek, “fundraising is a major problem for HBCUs.”
The study gives a comparison of the two of the nation’s “richest” schools regarding how they are sectioned. Howard University receives nearly $590 million from the government, which on the surface, seems like a lot of money.
But compared to the funding that Brown University receives, Howard is dwarfed. Brown is on the receiving end of over $3 billion in government funding each year.
Brown has a bustling alumni base that donates generously. Not saying that Howard doesn’t as they certainly have proud alumni. The differences are hard to miss.
Note that the lack of funding goes beyond alumni donations. Until she later amended it, presidential hopeful Hillary Clinton’s education plan would have undermined the funding of some HBCUs and would likely force a few to close.
“Free tuition to any community college and reduced tuition to public institutions, will expedite the extinction of several HBCUs. Without federal and state investment in public historically black campuses which lack unique programs, modernized facilities and marketing resources, students of all races will flock to larger, more developed predominantly white colleges.”
In essence, plans presented by Clinton and other candidates who lean left would take federal and state money used to aid HBCUs and refocus the dollars towards a general fund that will help schools that traditionally serve the general population.
Hypothetically, schools that aren’t necessarily in need of more federal assistance would receive extra dollars, and some HBCUs would be left in the cold.
Another issue that affects the amount of money HBCUs gets? In October of 2011, the U.S. Department of Education adjusted its lending policies for these popular, and in many cases necessary, loans to align more closely with what a traditional bank would require in the way of income and credit worthiness. All colleges took a hit with these changes, but HBCUs lost an estimated $50 million in the first full year these changes took place. For many HBCUs, the college population is made up of first-generation students with parents who often have not set aside the funding for a college education, but want to contribute financially. When PLUS loan eligibility changed, it felt like a blow directed at HBCUs.
And sometimes, the problem is just plain money mismanagement
Take Cheyney University, for example. In 2015, the country’s oldest HBCU owed the federal government nearly $30 million, according to nonprofitquarterly.org.
“[A] review conducted for the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education found that the school may have mismanaged the financial aid it receives from the U.S. Department of Education to assist students and, as a result, may owe the federal government more than $29 million.”
The article goes on to state that the school gave grants and loans to students who weren’t eligible. They also gave out too much money.
News for Cheyney isn’t getting better. The school currently carries a deficit of at least $15 million with an annual budget of $30 million. Paying back $29 million would bring the school to its knees.
Pennsylvania’s Auditor General Eugene DePasquale issued a report on the school’s future last year, and it was rather bleak.
“The size of its debt that is deemed not collectible is growing. The amount of state support it receives is on the decline. And its enrollment has hit a 31-year low.”
The report also noted that just nine percent of students who enroll at Cheyney stay for graduation.
Simply put, Cheyney is in deep trouble
Without serious financial help from alumni, the state, or the federal government, Cheyney’s 177-year history will soon come to a quick close.
All these financial issues cause a ripple effect, which leads to other issues, such as…
School closures. Lately, it seems there are just too many HBCUs in the news for the wrong reason: financial and accreditation woes that threaten, or deliver, closure.
For example, on June 3, 2014, Saint Paul’s College officials announced that it planned to close its doors – at least temporarily. The news followed a proposed merger with Saint Augustine’s University that fell through. After 125 years, the rural school that employs roughly 75 people in the community of Lawrenceville, Virginia had no choice but to close its doors to new students and help current ones find placement elsewhere.
After several years of highly-publicized financial problems, Morris Brown College turned down a bailout from the city of Atlanta in June that would have eliminated its bankruptcy troubles. In August, Morris Brown filed for federal bankruptcy protection to prevent foreclosure. Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and other city officials were more than a little surprised when the school rejected the $10 million offer that was designed to benefit the city too. A Morris Brown lawyer said the rejection is due to the school receiving an undisclosed, better offer from somewhere else. For now, though, Morris Brown is still $35 million in over its head, by some accounts.
Mergers. It’s not at all unusual to hear governors and former governors like Louisiana’s Bobby Jindal and Mississippi’s Haley Barbour announce plans to merge HBCUs with each other or other predominantly white institutions in moves that are intended to slash state operating costs.
In less than stunning news, the Georgia Board of Regents has decided to merge Historically Black College (HBCU) Albany State University with Predominately White Institution (PWI) Darton State College.
The new school will boast close to 9,000 students and will retain the name Albany State University.
While the move to combine two state colleges isn’t shocking, it did take some by surprise that the board decided to merge an HBCU and a PWI. In recent years we’ve seen HBCUs merging to keep their cultures intact, but not shutter their doors, but the move in Georgia doesn’t follow that path.
According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the move was partially made because of declining enrollment at both institutions.
“Both schools have faced enrollment declines in recent years. Albany State’s enrollment has dropped 25 percent in five years; Darton has seen a 14 percent enrollment decline since its peak in 2012.”
The Journal also reports that the school will become Southwest Georgia’s largest college.
Even without the declining enrollment figures, some have concerns that Albany State will lose its culture and identity by merging with a PWI. Hank Huckaby, chancellor of University system of Georgia, says that Albany State’s history and culture will not be compromised due to the merger (but he didn’t give specifics on how that will happen).
This announcement is not the first on merger in the state
A merger between Kennesaw State and Southern Polytechnic State universities was finalized earlier this year. The largest merger between Georgia State University and Georgia Perimeter College is in the works now.
Treating any two HBCUs as institutions that are alike enough to merge without incident is flawed, though. Planning to merge an HBCU with a predominantly white schools is even more off-base. These individual schools have their histories, their student cultures. Perhaps it makes financial sense to merge HBCUs with others similar in size or scope, but it undermines the collective institutions, undercutting their autonomy and what they can offer to potential students.
When students can no longer afford to go to school
And the consequences for lack of financial support HBCUs are receiving continue.
Take the general lack of affordability for students, for example. HBCUs have a legacy of providing affordable education to students. However, with many of the funding issues, HBCUs have been suffering. Lately, it’s harder for these colleges and universities to offer students the financial aid that they once generously provided.
Then, when it turns out that college graduates from HBCUs cannot make a return on their investment, the situation seems even worse.
According to a report, the starting salary for a new college graduate from an HBCU may not be enough to cover student loan debt.
By way of an article on Chron.com, the class of 2015 was projected to have about $35,000 in student loan debt upon graduation. That’s $7,000 more than what the class of 2013 will owe.
Of course, to pay back the loan, students have to have jobs that will afford them that opportunity.
So to look at how debt and income will factor into the financial success that students may have post-graduation, Edsmart.org found that some students who attend HBCU’s may struggle economically. It is a recipe for disaster when students can’t afford college when they start OR afford to pay it back when they graduate.
Not all students from HBCUs suffer this fate, however. The report shows that the average starting salary for new graduates out of Bethune-Cookman University comes in at just $38,700. That’s just $3,000 more than the average debt that students may carry. However, the in-state tuition and fees for BCU is a reasonable $14,410.
It gets even better if students attend Florida A&M University. Tuition for in-state students is just $5,785, $17,725 for out-of-state, and students project to make a little over $42,300 after graduation.
Other schools where students can expect to earn more include Xavier University, Howard University, Hampton University, and Tennessee State University.
While the salaries vary, and so will the debt per student, knowing that your earning potential fresh out of college may hover around $50,000 per year may take the sting away from having to pay the government back for your education.
It’s not just about the money, though…
There are other problems that may keep HBCUs from thriving in today’s world.
And, certainly, although HBCUs have fallen on hard times, they cannot completely play the role of victim, either. I’m a Dean at an HBCU and completely believe in the message – but even I can see that there are things we do collectively that are hurting our student populations and chances for longevity. We need to change that, together, and that starts with recognizing where we have made mistakes.
Slow adaptability. We’ve spent too much time wringing our hands and not enough time looking for solutions. Why were predominantly white institutions better prepared when the PLUS loan changes took place? Could we not have come up with our solutions too? When it comes to online schooling – most HBCUs are just finally implementing full-degree online programs and embracing the idea that our students don’t need to be on a physical campus to benefit. Yes, the campuses of HBCUs are their biggest advantages, steeped in history and a palpable air of shared struggle. This doesn’t mean we should force our students to set foot on our campuses, or not come at all. The inability to move quickly and keep up with the higher education times has hurt HBCUs but hopefully not permanently.
Lack of diversity. HBCUs are getting better at recruiting all students to their campuses and programs, but this is another area where we’ve done too little, too late. HBCUs are no longer the only option for students of color and haven’t been for decades. So why have we spent so little time rebranding ourselves as institutions that welcome all students and help those students succeed? The number of Latino, white and Asian students on HBCU campuses is rising slowly, but relying on our historically largest segment of students (after it became clear they did not need us as much as we needed them) has hurt us.
Lack of stability in administration. Over the past decade, too many HBCU presidents have seemingly disappeared in the middle of the night without explanation. South Carolina State University, for example, has seen 11 different presidents since 1992 but why? Often the answer lies in the fact that a board of trustees clings to the past, or spends too much time micromanaging and not enough looking at the future and big picture of the HBCU landscape. Such instability at the top cannot inspire confidence for faculty or students. To plant roots for the future, there needs to be consistent leadership that aligns with the long-term goals of the HBCU.
Not appreciating students. This may sound petty, but alumni who do not feel that their universities gave them a world-class education, or at the very least an adequate one, are less likely to give back financially. This hurts HBCUs more than PWIs, I think. An essay was written by an HBCU graduate who declined to name her school specifically expressed shock at the under-sophisticated classrooms and technology resources at her HBCU. While she points out the social atmosphere was top-notch and ultimately the reason she stayed until graduation, she says she would rather see her former school be shuttered than donate money to it. This is only one story, of course, but it rings true with other graduates I’ve met and read who believe they received a sub-par educational experience at an HBCU (sometimes on very basic levels) and who have no desire to donate money back. This is no way to maintain long-term student pride or bring in future students.
How can we bring HBCUs back to prominence?
Fortunately, there are many solutions that can help HBCUs rise to prominence once again. But those of us who support the continued existence of HBCUs will need to seek radical solutions so that we can see these institutions thrive again.
One of the most impactful ways we can help HBCUs thrive is by making sure they have the funds to do so. And how might that work? The solution is simple: alumni giving.
HBCU graduates are some of the proudest in the country, often with a stronger sense of social responsibility than their PWI-graduate peers. HBCUs aren’t doing a strong enough job tying that pride back into alumni giving programs. Case in point: Harvard raised a record-breaking $752 million in alumni and other gifts in the fiscal year 2013. At HBCU “Black Ivy League” Spelman College saw just $157.8 million ($20 million from alumni) during its Every Woman Every Campaign in 2013 that was a special, targeted campaign beyond normal annual endeavors.
Perhaps comparing Harvard’s financial gifts to any other school isn’t completely fair, but it does give an idea of what HBCUs are up against in the non-elite college market. If Spelman, considered the “best” HBCU, can only bring in one-fifth of the giving of Harvard in a year when Spelman aggressively went after donations, what does that say for every other HBCU?
An even better question is this: What can HBCU alumni giving campaigns improve upon to bring in more dollars to benefit their current crop of students?
Make college affordable
Even the best college education will come with resentment attached once a student has to start paying back those burdensome loans. HBCUs have a better shot at alumni giving back once a college education is paid off, so why not make that debt burden lighter? HBCUs have some of the best statistics when it comes to financial aid in the form of Pell grants and scholarships, and these institutions should continue to push for the funding to make obtaining a degree affordable – particularly for minority and first-generation college students. More money in these graduates’ pockets will translate into more alumni giving in the early years following graduation.
I don’t know about you, but getting standard alumni giving form in the mail with a return envelope does not usually inspire me to pull out my checkbook. The same is true of emails without much personality. Instead of just asking for the money, HBCUs need to put faces and causes along with the requests. What are some of the upcoming projects that this money could go towards? Who will receive scholarships from this giving? Even non-glamorous giving campaigns that go towards basic infrastructure have a better shot of meeting goals if alumni are informed of what money is being solicited to do. HBCU alumni who can associate their positive memories with money-making campaigns are more likely to want to be a part of making those things happen.
Get alumni involved before they leave campus
Don’t wait until students are off campus to solicit them for help with facilitating the college experience of the classes who follow them. Cash in on the good feelings that accompany graduation time from both the students earning degrees and their families. Even those who don’t have much may be willing to give a little to keeping the college dream alive for other students who are still trying to accomplish their academic goals. Set up a table outside commencement with giving forms and other alumni information. Have literature that explains to students how alumni giving dollars have facilitated what they’ve enjoyed while on campus. Send out an email blast to soon-to-be graduates inviting them to visit the alumni website, like its Facebook page, and join its official club. Don’t wait to chase alumni down after they’ve left; rope them in before they leave and keep them active in the coming years.
Just as HBCUs have a responsibility to get their student’s workforce-ready, alumni have a responsibility to give back to their institutions. HBCUs need to do a better job of conveying that, though and encouraging former students to step up to the plate.
Another way to build up HBCUs is to embrace diversity and innovation
When HBCUs began popping up in America, they were a necessity to higher educational paths for African American young people. Benefactors like John Rockefeller founded Spelman College in Atlanta (named after his wife, by the way) to give black students shot in a nation still very much in the throes of Jim Crow law domination. Most of the 105 HBCUs were founded in former slave areas that still presented steep challenges for African Americans that aspired to higher education but faced discrimination in dominantly white college settings.
The original intent of HBCUs worked. Some of the nation’s brightest and most influential minds came out of HBCUs. Langston Hughes was a Lincoln University graduate. Martin Luther King Jr. earned his degree from Morehouse College. Talk show queen Oprah Winfrey, education expert Marva Collins and Brown University President Ruth J. Simmons all earned degrees from HBCUs (from Tennessee State University, Clark Atlanta University, and Dillard University, respectively). These powerful pillars of the African American community were able to achieve optimal success in life because of the education they received from HBCUs.
But what about now? With white students quickly becoming one small aspect of on-HBCU settings, do ambitious African American students need an HBCU to achieve success? Perhaps a more poignant question is this: does it help or hinder the African American community when its members attend an HBCU today?
I think the answer is grounded in the particular student’s intent. Young African Americans today do not NEED an HBCU to obtain a general education, but they may find particular programs at individual schools meet their career objectives. Some may even find academic inspiration in the original founding purpose of an HBCU, and that feeling of carrying on tradition may fuel them to graduate, make an impact in the world and give back to their college or university.
The original purpose of HBCUs is no longer the only reason–but that does not mean that these institutions lack other attractive qualities. In fact, many students with white European, Latino or Asian roots are choosing HBCUs because of the strength of the academic programs and lower tuition costs. During the 2011 – 2012 school year, West Virginia State, Kentucky State and Delaware State universities all reported that more than 25 percent of their populations were made up of white Americans. A continued push for diversity on HBCU campuses is the only way these schools can transition from the necessity of the past to the potential of the future. This means implementing more online course options and flexible degree programs so that all students can picture themselves succeeding at an HBCU. Gratitude for the original intent of HBCUs combined with forward educational thinking for students of all heritages will carry HBCUs to the next level of achievement in higher learning circles.
One school that decided to use online course options to strengthen its program is North Carolina Agricultural & Technical. These online programs are geared towards growing the school’s enrollment figures.
According to Insidehighered.com, NC A&T’s online offerings will be cheaper than “face-to-face” courses for in-state students, and they plan to go after students outside of their traditional demographic.
“To help enrollment grow, we have to look at different mechanisms to engage students in general. We can’t solely focus on the traditional 18- to 22-year-old,” said Joe Whitehead, vice president for academic affairs.
By non-traditional students, A&T plans to market the online programs towards adults who work, military members, and “students who left college before they could graduate.”
Another marketing tool the school will use is that A&T is now the nation’s largest Historically Black College and University as it recently surpassed Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University in enrollment.
“Florida A&M’s enrollment has fallen; North Carolina A&T’s has hovered below 11,000 students for nearly a decade. This fall, once again, enrollment sits at 10,875, a slight increase of 141 from the previous year.”
Some HBCUs have attempted to offer online programs in the past but have fallen short. As of 2014, just 33 HBCU’s offered online programs and all aren’t jumping on the bandwagon.
By way of Edcentral.org, Spellman College has no interest in offering online courses now or in the future.
HBCUs are still attempting to navigate the terrain of online education, and are rightfully taking the time to ensure that student success is a top priority before going all in. Still, if HBCUs are places that cater to traditionally disadvantaged students, a move towards online programs seems to be the right direction.
Are HBCUs a lost cause?
In my home state of Mississippi, I grew up attending athletic and cultural functions at Tougaloo College, Alcorn State University, Mississippi Valley State University and Jackson State University. These universities are sources of great pride and a part of the African American intellectual tradition. Now is the time when people who support HBCUs, including advocates, organizations, faculty, students, and alumni, need to rally together to help save this historical piece of African American history. If these groups come together and make their voices heard, we will be able to save these institutions. But make no mistake, if there is no rally, if there is no coming together to let the powers-that-be know that we want them saved, then I predict that they will be gone in 50 or so years. And they will not return. Nobody is going to turn back the hands of time and open another historically black college or university because it wouldn’t be historic. Right now, they are historic, and they need our support and rescue!
Many people are currently asking whether HBCUs are worth saving in the first place. I ask, how can these historical institutions, which represent African American culture, tradition, and struggle for educational equality, not be considered worth saving? If they are not worth saving, then it makes it very difficult to find any other piece of African American heritage that is worth saving. These educational institutions are symbols of our people that must not be ignored.
I urge those who care about these institutions to speak out, show your support, and demand that adequate funding be provided to them so that they can make it through these turbulent economic times. It’s not just about saving a college or university. This is a metaphor for saving ourselves! With proper funding, these schools will thrive, carrying on our culture and traditions as they were meant to do.